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The first problem is that the idea is a rephrasing, in contemporaneously acceptable language, of a very old notion of the “liberal arts.” The medieval European understanding of liberal arts, based partially on a reinterpretation of classical ideas, suggested that elites needed an open-ended education based on the trivium and quadrivium (grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy) because, as rulers, they would face complex and unexpected problems, whereas others only needed an introduction to “practical arts” relevant to specific repeated labor.
Reorienting this proposition around “uncertain futures” doesn’t get away from the uncomfortable hierarchical implications still embedded in it. The hidden proposition seems to be that it’s fine for petrochemical engineers to just learn petrochemical engineering, but that future politicians, leaders, policy makers, artists and so on need to learn in a more flexible and less prescriptive way. But if the underlying point about uncertain futures is true, then we should draw the opposite conclusion: The people who may need liberal arts the most are the petrochemical engineers, or anyone else who works in a field that could shift dramatically based on deep structural changes in the economy or in the ongoing material conditions of human life.
Once you see it that way, you recognize that either everyone needs liberal arts or no one does. If liberal arts and preparation for uncertainty are synonymous, it can’t possibly make sense to limit that training to future leaders or a small elite. If everyone needs it but what we mean by liberal education is only accessible or comprehensible to students with special or privileged preparation, then we’re lying or confused about our proposed linkage to uncertainty.
Which is the next problem. The linkage of uncertainty to the liberal arts also depends on a caricature of “vocational” or pre-professional pedagogy by faculty and other higher-education professionals who have limited experience with those practices. Liberal-arts faculty can be surprisingly incurious about how teaching actually happens in educational settings different from their own — in programs allegedly too instrumental, too fixed, too rigidly tied to a single profession or job. In some cases, faculty who identify as doing liberal arts are transposing an objection they have to the professional practices, outlooks, or ideologies of the end products of some courses of study with the structure and nature of the pedagogy in those courses of study.
I may have an issue with the dispositional outlook of many professionals holding an M.B.A., but I have not carefully studied whether what I take issue with is rooted in what and how they learned on the way to that degree. Only rarely do we get a specific enough look inside some aspect of professional or vocational training to see a connection between a profession’s questionable practices and the questionable things taught to those professionals — say, for example, the connections between police training on the use of force and the actuality of the use of force by contemporary police. Pedagogy is hard to witness and analyze wherever it happens, whether we’re interested in a class on electrical wiring or English literature.
This point leads to my deepest concern about uncertainty and liberal education: Our assumptions about how to teach to uncertainty are mostly unexplored, and the empirical evidence of whether we do so successfully is debatable. To the degree that we are successful, we don’t really know why. Arguably, the capacity to navigate uncertainty has less to do with student learning than with the social capital and economic resources available to our graduates. This is where “preparation for uncertainty” lives alongside other reassuring concepts like “resilience,” “emotional intelligence,” or “grit.” These concepts may not be measuring teachable skills or habits of mind so much as access to money and social networks. Dealing with rapidly changing conditions is much easier if your parents can help with the rent or if you know someone who can get you in the door in a new line of work after your current gig closes down.
Still, let us suppose that liberal education of the kind offered at highly selective private colleges and research universities offers a good example of curricular structures or pedagogies that prepare graduates to anticipate and endure uncertainty. What exactly are those structures and practices, then?
Many of us would answer “critical thinking” (which may be an equally leaky terminological boat). We’d likely assert that critical thinking suffuses our institutions in such a way that their graduates learn to view the world around them skeptically and provisionally, and that this in turn prepares them to adapt rapidly to changing economic and social conditions (and to help lead or direct processes of change for others). The major problem with this answer is that any curricular structure, any pedagogy, can likely and perhaps justifiably claim to be producing critical thinking and hence to be preparation for uncertainty. It’s so truistic and underspecified that it’s hard to be satisfied with it as an answer. Possibly, we could decompose “critical thinking” to far more specific epistemological and methodological commitments in various academic disciplines: the scientific method, thought experiments, close reading, etc., and get a better account of how to teach skepticism, provisional truth-making, and so on. Possibly.
Who is adapting best to uncertainty in the political sphere? Many educated professionals, especially those who identify as liberals or progressives, have self-reported in the last year that they feel completely incapable of adapting to the politics of this dangerous moment in American history. As they should.
We can and should be reducing uncertainty where it has been engineered on purpose, where it is used to produce insecurity and precarity for the benefit of a few.
I believe in what Helga Nowotny calls “the cunning of uncertainty” and accept her argument that everyone — rich and poor, college educated in a liberal-arts curriculum, or high-school educated in a trade — can and should live with and even embrace that cunning. By “cunning,” Nowotny means that uncertainty is an irreducible part of human life and the physical universe, and that we should follow where it leads us. Just so. I also believe in what the economist John Kay has called obliquity: that in a very concrete and empirical sense, many of our most cherished goals and values are achievable only if we do not try to achieve them directly. Tell me you want to be happy in life, and I will, following Kay, tell you that you should not try to be happy. The road to happiness involves long detours through unknown and unexpected pathways.
At the same time, we can and should be reducing uncertainty where it has been engineered on purpose, where it is used to produce insecurity and precarity for the benefit of a few. It is one thing to try to prepare students for the broad reality of uncertainty as Nowotny describes it, or to orient them to the oblique routings between an educational present and lifelong aspirations. It is entirely another to deploy the rhetoric of uncertainty to naturalize the unstable labor markets of the early 21st century.
The uncertainty of those markets is a product of the credulous and wholly ideological celebration of “creative destruction” and “disruptive innovation” by the oligarchs of our present American moment and their courtiers. There is nothing inevitable or natural about the proposition that industries, workplaces, and communities should expect to be discarded at any moment by private equity firms, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, or crony capitalists. The proposition that training for uncertainty means accepting the need to change everything about your skills, values, aspirations, and material situation at a moment’s notice because a few people with extraordinary wealth and power have almost incidentally destroyed your status quo is not the cunning of uncertainty but the craft of exploitation and domination.
For the same reason, we should not have to adapt to a rising authoritarianism or a capricious pack of liars doing whatever it takes to hold to power. We cannot and should not build a political system that is so stable that it banishes contingency and forbids contention — but neither should we accept that our political tomorrows must be arbitrary and that the well-educated should be prepared to adapt to life under any form of sovereignty, however awful or destructive.
Maybe a liberal education is, or could be, about embracing uncertainty where it is generative, necessary, and useful. But in the rush to reassure current applicants and anxious families that our students will be prepared to dance nimbly into an uncertain future, we are not only dangerously incurious about whether that’s actually true — we are offering a form of unwarranted benediction to the engineered precarity of our present moment. Inhabiting the foundational uncertainty of the universe is one of the deepest challenges of human life. If we have insight into that, good. If we don’t, let’s work to develop that insight. But we mustn’t confuse this work with the drive to normalize the insecurity of our present moment. Our educational job there is different: We must teach our students to reject that project entirely.
A version of this piece originally appeared in the author’s newsletter, “Eight by Seven.”